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Monday, August 23, 2004

Our Opinion

Don’t Blame the Fans

The concerns of the international media covering the Athens Olympiad have progressively moved from security and organization to the use of performance-enhancing drugs and now, finally, to the attendance at the games. While worries about security, the readiness of the venues, and the adequacy of the transport infrastructure appear to have abated, the press’s attention has been redirected toward the manifest lack of attendance throughout the games and at any number of events during the first few days.

It’s natural for Greeks to wonder, of course, whether they can ever   do anything right — and be given credit for it — in the eyes of the   foreign media, although the conspiracy theories that are again being mooted   by the Greek press strike us as the least intelligent response to the questions   currently being posed. The problem with organizing the Olympics in their present   gigantic dimensions is that you have to deal with and anticipate an enormous   agenda of issues. The gravest consequence of significant delays in the whole   process of preparation, therefore, is that the organizers cannot logistically   and physically cover all the requirements adequately.

That there were major delays in preparing the venues and infrastructure to   support the Athens games is indisputable. That security (and the pressure to   deal with it at a level that was never anticipated when this bid was made)  overwhelmed the organizers is also beyond dispute. Under enormous pressure   to complete preparations, and under an extremely tight schedule to do so that   allowed for absolutely no mistakes anywhere, the organizers focused on the   obvious and took their eye off the slightly less obvious. In the end, something   had to give, which is why it’s not surprising that the organizers dropped   the ball on this issue. The mantra of completing the venues drowned out those   voices — not only of the foreign media but of the Greek government — asking   what was being done to fill the seats of the venues once they were in fact   completed.

Back when Greece was being criticized heavily and on all fronts about the   construction delays on the major Olympic projects, it was argued that the so-called   Greek filotimo, upon which the hopes of the entire country were being placed,  could not by itself complete three-lane highways. As it turned out, filotimo  might have been capable of finishing road construction, but it could not save   Greece on every front, let alone fill empty seats with spectators. At this   point in their (over)development, the Olympics are too complex and complicated   an event for quaint (and, frankly, silly) notions of filotimo to be able to   deal with all their varying demands.

Yesterday, the Athens 2004 organizing committee (ATHOC 2004) announced that   the Athens Olympiad had “won a gold” (!) in the attendance competition,  with approximately 3.5 million tickets sold until now. There’s no doubt   that many events (swimming and basketball, to name two) are very well-attended,  as is evident from television coverage. Still, those of us who have been following   these games from the outset have seen the depressingly low attendance in any   number of events, from soccer and gymnastics to boxing and rowing. Furthermore,  despite the organizing committee’s celebratory tone about tickets, the   recent bickering about attendance between government officials and ATHOC2004   suggests that there is indeed a problem. The ministry of culture recently pointed   out that it had repeatedly expressed concerns about attendance to the committee,  only to be given assurances that this was not going to become an issue.

Well, it has, and it is. And it is because the Olympics are not — and   this might surprise some people, including a few on ATHOC 2004 — about   opening ceremonies, beautiful sports facilities, or luxurious accommodations   for the “Olympic family.” Above all else, the Olympics are about   athletes, and about their individual or collective competitions. Spectatorship   is critical to competition. The IOC might care about television broadcasting   the games to billions of people globally, but the athletes do not — or,  rather, it is not what motivates them to perform and, more important, to excel.  Athletes want — and need — to compete in front of living, breathing,  and screaming human beings. That is the essence of competition. Without an   audience, competition ceases to be…competition. The majority of athletes   train for years in isolation and obscurity for a moment of glory under the   encouraging, and celebratory, gaze of other men and women. It is bad enough   training and competing in obscurity, but to win a gold medal in obscurity seems   particularly cruel treatment to impose on any athlete.

There have been many attempts to justify this situation, from arguing that August is vacation month for Greeks to the fact that the Feast of the Assumption coincided with the games’ opening. We won’t dignify these transparent excuses with a serious rebuttal. Nevertheless, it is important not to blame Greeks for what is actually an organizational blunder.

It’s clear that something intrinsic here was never anticipated by ATHOC   2004. The culture of being a spectator of sport per se, of disinterested fanship,  in other words — that is, the desire to enter an arena as a spectator for   the sake of it — does not really exist in Greece. It is very difficult,  then, to attract people to unfamiliar sports, some of which are considered   obscure even by professional sports journalists. Things become even more daunting   with sports that do not have a popular following. Kayaking, boxing, gymnastics,  and table tennis, for example, have never had any significant following or   public attention in Greece. It is also important to point out that swimming   is popular at the current Olympiad not because it has gotten more media attention   in Greece than other sports; it’s because a large swimming sub-culture   exists in Greece that follows the sport, and it is very popular with the middle   class. There are hundreds of swimming clubs throughout Greece, and thousands   of children swimming competitively; consequently, thousands of parents are   involved in the whole process and, especially, as spectators and fans.

Absent a culture of fanship, and a mass following for a particular event such   as swimming, national sentiment becomes the issue affecting attendance. People   will attend events in which Greek athletes or teams are competing, and even   more so if there is hope that they will do well. That explains the good attendance   in water polo, basketball, and the matches of the Greek soccer team. Team sports   such as the above also have a very strong following, as they are affiliated   with particular clubs that are supported religiously.

Perhaps the organizers thought attendance was a given — although that   would have been truly inexplicable since even popular sports such as soccer   and basketball have declined significantly in local attendance during the last   few years. The tremendous excitement over the Greek national soccer team’s   run in the European Cup was obviously a unique event — and should not have   fooled anybody, or lulled ATHOC 2004 into its apparent complacency. League   matches have been played in front of empty stadiums for many years now.

Actually, when all is said and done, the response of Greeks to the games has   been extraordinary. The fact that a country of 11 million people has absorbed   most of the 3.5 million tickets sold is astonishing. But ATHOC 2004 could have   taken some very simple steps to ensure that a number of events would not have   taken place in front of empty seats. Major sponsors could have been asked to   participate in school programs in which certain sports were promoted and tickets   were made available to students; furthermore, incentives could have been offered   to people outside Athens to come and attend the games. (The truth is that these   are not Greece’s games but Athens’s games, and it is difficult   to imagine anyone living outside the “national center” becoming   genuinely involved at the level of direct spectatorship.) Finally, tickets   to poorly attended events could have been bought by the government and offered   to people at reduced cost, or even for free. Yes, this would have been decidedly   unfair to those who paid (in some cases, dearly) for their tickets. It would   have been less unfair, however, than having athletes compete in empty stadiums.

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